Confronting Biases in My Hero Academia

In the months since I’ve started watching it, My Hero Academia has quickly become my favorite battle shonen series. It’s not particularly mold-breaking; it uses the same genre tropes as most other series of its ilk. Its main strength is that it brings the genre’s strengths to the forefront, with a supremely likable ensemble cast and exciting battles, while leaving behind many of the genre’s typical weaknesses. One of battle shonen’s greatest struggles has long been how to incorporate its female characters, and My Hero Academia handles the situation with rare grace and aplomb. However, no work of art is free of biases, and while My Hero Academia avoids many issues associated with the genre, there are still many sexist biases deeply encoded in the series.

C8UXjHfUIAA0TWa
They’re good girls, Brant

“Battle shonen” refers to the subgenre of action-driven manga aimed at boys that focus on battles between characters, as the name implies, and are structured around arcs with the series’ overarching goal being only vaguely defined, if at all. They’re dominated by a number of conventions the audience have come to expect, such as a young male protagonist with a core group of friends, a rival, tournament and training arcs, and a series of increasingly powerful villains. Popular battle shonen like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and Fairy Tale can run for decades. My Hero Academia is a relatively new entry to the genre, drawing much of its inspiration from Western superhero narratives and synthesizing that with the typical ideas of the genre.

These series have long tended to struggle with what to do with their female characters. They are often introduced early in the series, when the protagonist has yet to set themselves apart from the pack, and become part of the core cast. However, as the male protagonist gets more and more powerful, the girls on their team often lag behind them in ways that the boys don’t. They become relegated to healers or support duties, but rarely get the spotlight in battle. They get designated female enemies to fight against, before they are neatly removed from the conflict. They become damsels for the boys to rescue. On the rare occasions that women are powerful fighters or mentors, they are often sexualized to the point of disrespect.

5e70613c5cf4c9071047e6d80d7430c5
The most powerful character in Fairy Tail

My Hero Academia neatly sidesteps most of these issues by treating its female characters as interesting, integral members of the ensemble cast. They have varied, likable personalities and appearances, with useful quirks that make them valuable contributors to the team both in and out of battle. No one embodies this more than Ochaco Uraraka, Izuku’s cheerful friend with the ability to make things float. She’s a clear choice for the love interest – a friendly girl-next-door type who meets Izuku by using her quirk to prevent him from tripping and falling on the day of the entrance exam – and he does indeed develop a crush on her. Despite his feelings, friendship defines their relationship, rather than attraction, and they thus far remain close but platonic. His crush on her is so secondary to their camaraderie that it’s easy to forget that it even exists. Such relationships between male and female characters are rare in any genre, but I honestly can’t remember last time I saw it in a battle shonen series; they tend to be mentor-student or focused mainly on romantic feelings. Rather than treating her as a means to an end or an object of Izuku’s affection, mangaka Horikoshi writes Ochaco as a person first, with same amount of interiority and individuality as any of the male characters.

241df7fbb1e92c2491edaa480574df71--boku-no-hero-academia-style-inspiration
Just friends being dorks

The aniblogger sphere has heaped praise on the episode “Bakugo vs. Uraraka” for its approach to pitting Ochaco against Katsuki Bakugo, Izuku’s longtime rival, and for good reason. Bakugo, whose quirk allows him to combust his sweat made of nitroglycerin, is one of the most powerful and dangerous competitors in their school’s sports festival tournament. Izuku tries to help Ochaco by coming up with a strategy for her to fight him, worried that she’ll be immediately and thoroughly beaten by the volatile Bakugo. She enters the ring with a quavering smile that fails to cover up her nervousness. Once the fight gets going, it becomes clear that she never needed Izuku’s help; she develops her own strategy based around getting Bakugo to blow up the ground and making the rubble float above his head, crashing down at a key moment. She’s a bright girl who has been using her quirk for close to a decade; she is perfectly capable of coming up with her own strategy.

05d1acf0af4d6677f7045f94a2d2a7e7.png
Angling the camera from below emphasizes the character’s power and strength

It seems possible that Horikoshi scripted this fight specifically to call out the sexism endemic to the genre. As the fight continues and Ochaco takes explosion after explosion, the onlookers jeer at Bakugo, angry at him for “picking on” her and imploring her to send her out of bounds. Ochaco is cute and harmless-looking, causing them to perceive her as less capable. Their teacher Aizawa jumps onto the mic, calling them out: “Was that a pro saying he’s playing around? How many years have you been a pro? If you’re saying that with a straight face, there’s no point in you watching anymore, so go home! Go home, and look into changing careers! Bakugo is being careful because he’s acknowledged the strength of an opponent who has made it this far. It’s because he’s doing everything he can to win that he can’t go easy on her or let his guard down.” Ochaco may be cute and lacking in raw physical power, but she has made it this far on her own strength; the audience asking him to knock her out because they’re uncomfortable seeing her fighting all-out against a clearly powerful male opponent is selfish and disrespectful, on top of making assumptions and not taking her seriously. Aizawa points out their implicit biases, that they assume she is not a worthy opponent because she is female, and this particular bias rears its ugly head over and over in battle shonen as the female characters are relegated to the sidelines. Even after the fight, their classmates tease Bakugo for looking like a villain beating up on a frail girl – it’s still an uphill battle for female fighters to be taken as seriously as male ones.

It’s not hard to see why the characters would assume girls are weaker; there’s plenty of in-universe evidence to uphold that. Thus far, we’ve only met four female professional heroes: the elderly healer Recovery Girl, Mount Lady, Uwabami, and Midnight, compared to about a dozen male professionals. In the Unforeseen Simulation Joint, not a single villain is female. Even in Class 1-A, under ⅓ of the students are female. In early planning stages, it was only four; two of them, Tohru and Tsuyu, were originally planned to be male. He changed them to make the gender balance more even, but that did not come close to fixing the problem. The rest of the school appears to suffer from the same imbalance. It’s an oft-quoted statistic that men perceive groups as majority-female once more than ⅓ are women, and My Hero Academia perpetuates that issue.

f69ef891e2a4b78e9ec9aa4fb7cd4c92.png

My Hero Academia has a relatively low level of fan service for the genre, especially compared to series like One Piece and Fairy Tail, which delight in regularly displaying the mostly-naked bodies of their female cast. The aforementioned Mount Lady and Midnight are both highly fetishized; Mount Lady, a literal giantess, introduces herself with a coy, “Nice to make your ass-quaintance!” and Midnight bases her whole aesthetic around sadomasochism, with the epithet “The R-Rated Hero” and a flog whip as a weapon. Uwabami makes her much of her living as a TV celebrity and hires her female interns on the basis of their looks. While the students of Hero Academy are quite realistically proportioned, those two are very busty with costumes that highlight their curves. Class A’s Mineta is particularly an affront, so much so that hating him has become a meme on social media. He routinely attempts touch or peep on his classmates without their consent. While the girls may retaliate, especially Tsuyu, these moments are played off as jokes. When he tricks the girls into dressing in cheerleader uniforms, they become angry, but they continue to wear them anyway, to the delight of the boys in the class.

A look through the series’ supplementary material reveals more of Horikoshi’s biases. Each character receives ratings in five different areas, including power, speed, technique, intelligence, and cooperation. Across the board, the girls of Class 1-A have low ratings in power, with an average of only 1.83 out of five, and high ratings in cooperation. While the female cast is truly a delight and I enjoy how they’ve worked together in risky situations, I’d love to see a female character as ornery and temperamental as Bakugo. Instead, this continues to prop up the stereotype that women are naturally better at working together than men, and that they must be sweet and gregarious. In a universe where the majority of people have supernatural powers, there is no reason for a lack of physical strength among the female cast as well. Many of the male characters’ quirks are so powerful we never see them throw a punch, including Todoroki, one of Izuku’s chief rivals. Even if you buy into the idea that women simply lack the physical strength of men, it would be simple for a girl to have a power that strong in combat.

These criticisms are not meant as an indictment of Horikoshi or My Hero Academia; everyone has biases they subconsciously insert into their work. “Bakugo vs. Uraraka” demonstrates a level of awareness that most battle shonen lack in addition to an effort to improve how girls are portrayed in these kinds of stories. Coexisting with the issues discussed above doesn’t make Horikoshi a hypocrite, nor should it necessarily reduce anyone’s enjoyment and excitement all the show’s myriad strengths.

My Hero Academia is a delightful series, and it has merited much of the praise it has received. However, that does not mean it’s immune to criticism or doesn’t have its own unconscious biases encoded in it. Weekly Shonen Jump’s readership is almost at parity; while it may be aimed primarily at boys, its writers and editors should still be aware of the female readers and takes steps toward inclusiveness. My Hero Academia is so close, but we should not simply ignore or excuse its shortcomings.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Confronting Biases in My Hero Academia

  1. inrosegalaxy

    THANK YOU! I love this anime a great deal, which is unusual for me as I often HATE Jump titles due to how much dismissive and gross their treatment of the female cast tends to be. But My Hero has done a pretty bang up job thus far. That said, as always, there’s room for improvement. And even IF girls weren’t part of the fanbase, it should still be improved! It’d be better writing to improve it, after all ^^

    Like

  2. Imani

    Yep. I’m enjoying the heck out of MHA but the imbalance between the male and female characters definitely bugs me. Momo is one of the 2/3 students who got in on a recommendation, like Todoroki. Yet judging by her performance in season 2 that I’ve seen so far, she may as well have been in the supporting course. They sicced the stupid pervert on her and then had Fumikaga beat her without breaking a sweat. It made me confused really, since it was acknowledged that the academy’s entrance process favoured physical over mental abilities.

    The show does still have a lot to offer and I adore the animation in the closing ED. May one day we get a shonen title that puts characters like them in spotlight.

    Like

    1. Momo’s Quirk isn’t about physicality, it’s about use of her mind, so you’ve arguably missed the point as to what makes her a strong potential Hero compared to Todoroki who shoots fire and ice from his hands.

      There’s a limit with her not only with being unable to create organic material, but also that it’s based on her knowledge of it. She can’t just make a gun, it’s too complicated to just generate in a pinch. We do see her improve later, don’t worry and it’s even in the anime, so you don’t have to read the manga version when this season inevitably ends.

      Tokoyami beating her wasn’t meant to disparage her as a woman or even stereotype her as weak because of that,since Tokoyami’s Quirk is based on having significant advantage as far as we’re aware with range and power, but we do know there are limits even to it that Bakugou exploits when he beats the Dark Shadow user. Momo getting in on recommendation could’ve just as easily been because of her excellent grades rather than having an especially impressive demonstration of her Quirk (which isn’t to say she can’t use it well, because she definitely can and arguably gets better)

      Like

  3. Medusa

    Personally even if only 1/3 are women I don’t mind as long as they are good characters.

    Mt Lady – I love her – is Mrs Fanservice and she’s great at it. But the problem comes when too much women become that and only serve this purpose.

    Only two teachers are women. One is from a SM club, literally. The other one is an old lady give healing kiss. That’s could even sound like a joke, right?
    And the heroin who gave Momo a recommendation chose her because… she was a cute girl? Yes. That’s the reason. (E15S2) And what this heroin’s teaching her? Communication. By that, she means also taking sexy photos.
    That’s pretty sad…

    Personnaly I like fanservice. But after you must use those characters after that. The best example for me is Soul Eater. We have sexy times, sexy characters but they weren’t here only for Fanservice (except maybe Blair).

    Like

  4. gatsu

    Erza the most powerful character in Fairy Tail? What are you drinking? One could easily make a case for her not being in the top 5 of her own guild, let alone the whole series.

    As far as BNHA is concerned, I think that it is one of the series that have dealt with their female cast in the best/most realistic way possible. Kudos to them for that.

    Like

  5. Juuuuuul

    I’m glad it was acknowledged that some of what we could perceive as biases can very well just be subconscious at play, and I think that’s the case here, especially with things like the male-female proportions in Class-A. In different cultures, it’s easy to assume things were done intentionally with how shocking they can come off as, and even though I think it’s important to recognize these things, it also helps to give scrutiny to the fact that some of the things you notice aren’t always to push some idea. I don’t know how I found this site or this piece, but I’m really glad I did. You’re very good at analyzing and very clear, too. And you gave me a new reason to love the whole Ochaco versus Bakugo fight.

    Like

  6. In regards to how the adult heroines all ply their looks or sexuality in their careers, I actually repercieve that as fairly double edged. Is it lame the girls seem too lack adult heroine role models that aren’t sexualized? Yes, yes it does… That’s sort of the point.

    A major component of MHA is that the world adapted to superheros by making them celebrities supported by corporate sponsorship. This is why so many are preening egomaniacs that you have individuals like Stain foaming at the mouth with anger about how much of a problem there is with “fake” heroes… But BEYOND that, this isn’t just detrimental to the public, but aspiring heroes… They don’t just need to prove their capability and determination, they need to establish marketability as a brand. Consider the tournament arc… The kids push themselves to injury and openly weep at defeat in the finals, when there is literally NOTHING at stake outside the fact it’s a known reality sponsors watch the games… With semi-quantifiable feedback coming in just a few episodes later in the form of internship authors. You have characters like the mind control kid who by direct discussion would be a better hero than most but isn’t marketable… He might never get a job because his fights DON’T involve collaterally damaging fisticuffs. Momo gets an internship based on her looks rather than her skills. The kids choose their names in class with teacher input, and they get costumes BASED off designs they submit but ultimately finalized created without their oversite… Basically there’s a reality that’s very present (but I wish they’d openly discuss more) in the setting that branding and popularity is so important that even skill and a premiere degree often aren’t enough, and part of why UA is premiere is it grooms kids to “play to the system” as it were… After all, any higher education institution wants to have an impressive record of alumni success… But this involves conditioning for things less rooted in heroism than marketing.

    The jokes about how pandering Mt. Lady is or how much of Uwabami’s schedule is preening for cameras aren’t just jokes, they’re a lens to a very dark reality about the setting… Girl heroes just don’t GET “successful” other than the ones willing to be glamorous or even borderline smutty. Scarlet Johanson is on record for a lot of interviews reguarding frustration with things producers/directors/etc just expect attractive actresses to be willing to do without complaint involving being sexualized in films… And while I don’t hold it against her, even though she’s famous FOR complaining/disliking it, her most prominent recurring role involves a bodysuit and a really offensive side plot in one of the more recent films, and she shows even more skin in some other roles… It seems like there’s nit much getting around it if you want top tier success as a woman in our world… I think the lack of non-sexualized adult heroines, heroes being MHAs celebrities, is primarily to highlight a reality that their world never escaped that same problem… Maybe Aizawa gets so angry about the crowd underestimating Uchaku because he’s just seen way too many female students qualified to be great heroes wash out of the industry, and is sick to death of it as one of the truly good intentioned major heroes. Midnight at least seems like a qualified and justly motivated heroine who is simply “into” being a bit fetishy to her great convenience, but I think the fact the only other two female famed heroes we see are a beauty queen sort who spends more time on product plugs than crime, and Mt Lady, who we the audience are actively lended 3rd person perspective explicitly to show us how she’s pretty awful isn’t a subconscious slight, but a very intentional display of how the system is warped and our young female protagonists might really have their work cut out for them…

    Anyway, just wanted to point all that out… Not sure if it escaped the author or they just didn’t get into it, but I felt like it warranted mention. Agree with greater thesis… This theory could even go so far as to explain why only 1/3 of the students are female, but would really have liked to see (and SHOULD see realistically) more of those girl students and adult heroines be true powerhouses on par with Cementoss and Ectoplasm, if not at the top competing with All Might and Endeavor (though why NOT at that level, at the same time?) in terms of their abilities, if not their success…. The latter can be a commentary on a glass cieling… The former feels hard to interpret as anything but a somewhat disrespectful oversite.

    As a final note though, can I say how much I love Hatsune Mei, especially in relation to this topic? I found an insightful comment on the recent Black Panther film to be one reviewer pointing out how it’s cool and all for little girls to be able to say “I wanna be Wonder Woman/Black Widow!”, but it’s also cool they can now say “I wanna be Shuri!” While Bond is the glamorous one, many guys would be really excited to be Q…. Because kicking ass is the main way to be bad ass in action films, it gets the most attention involving the fact we need more ladies in those roles… But breaking up the sausage party in the roles of characters that are badass without kicking ass being their primary trade is a trend worth pursuing too.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s